What on earth is State Services minister Chris Hipkins up to? First he wants a unified public service; now he is putting a stop to the wholesale deployment of consultants across departments, a cunning but expensive trick to circumvent staff shortages created by the sinking-lid policy of the previous government.
He says this won’t result in wholesale increases in the state sector since the government ultimately controls its budget.
All of this has been welcomed by old hands in the service. There is a widespread belief that departments today are too “silo-ised” and the connectedness of old has gone. They compete for staff.
Announcing the numbers of public servants would no longer be capped as ordered by the previous government, Hipkins agreed this had created a focus on efficiency, but said it also led to “perverse” incentives.
Central to this has been the sharp increase in spending on consultants and contractors, as departments battled to limit permanent staff numbers while coping with increased demands.
According to figures compiled by the Government, consultant and contractor costs almost doubled from $278m in 2009 to $550m in 2017.
Under the previous directive, the State Services Commission limited the number of “core” public servants to just under 36,500, the largest proportion based in Wellington, staffing a variety of departments and ministries.
“Capping data“, released by the SSC, pointed to another potential target for Hipkins. The number of spin doctors employed by departments had reached 311.4 full-time equivalents at the end of June 2017, up from 271.9 a year earlier (although the number is still slightly below the level of 2008).
If Hipkins seeks further reforms and cost savings, there is plenty of scope in hauling back the vast expenditure by departments on logos and glossy publications.
Then there was the weekly public service circular which advertised all departmental jobs.
And would it be a step too far to bring back the annual “stud book” which listed every public servant in terms of appointments, actual salary (as opposed to “bands”) date of birth and educational qualifications.
All of that provided maximum transparency and avoided awkward problems of falsification.
There was no privacy legislation then and it seemed to work.